Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving,
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Even if you have broken your vow a hundred times,
Come, come again.
— Jalal ad-din Muhammad Rumi, 13th century poet and Sufi mystic
Ours is not a caravan of despair! Why? Because we carry within us an oasis that, if only we take the time to sit and savor, fills us with joy, a sense of connection, a lightness of being. Yet so often we fill our meditation period with harsh inner commentary about our sorry state, how ill-fitted we are to the task of meditation. We do this at the very moment of realization that our mind has been wandering. If only we could realize that in that moment we are quite fully present in our experience, and this is cause for celebration. Instead of gratitude for this moment of presence, we so often choose instead to sit in judgment of the minutes before. Instead of sensing the pleasure of awareness, we fall back into an oh-so-familiar but uncomfortable pattern of making disparaging remarks. Off our mind goes again, into the brutal desert, into despair. We do this in other parts of our life as well, don’t we? We think of someone we care about, and instead of feeling joy, we suffer guilt, shame, dread or some other discomfort, because somehow we believe we have not done enough for them, have not done right by them or have not stayed in touch. Is this based in truth? Or is the very discomfort that arises what keeps us from fully engaging? Who put the discomfort there? Most often we create it ourselves. Sometimes we have in mind something we want to do with our lives, yet we spin our wheels in this very same cycle of despair, torturing ourselves with schoolyard bully taunts, and we are stopped in our tracks. Sometimes these taunts set us up for non-action. Sometimes they set us up for destructive action. Listening in, recognizing the fear-based quality of these inner conversations is very important in order to recognize the the murky, sometimes downright nasty, motivations, so that we can apply the wisdom of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path to help us. After a period of meditation is an especially good time to explore and question, one by one, as they arise in our field of awareness, these murky motivations. Resetting Intention — Wise Action includes resetting our intentions, our vows, again and again. In this we understand and accept that we are human, by our very nature prone to error. This resetting of intentions is not casually undertaken, the way my granddaughter gaily calls out ‘Sorry!’ as she repeats whatever annoying thing she has done. (We’re hoping it’s just a phase.) Most of us know someone who is equally casual with their apologies and doesn’t have the excuse of being only three years old. We don’t want to be that person who thinks an oft-repeated ‘Sorry!’ is sufficient to repair damage done, who justifies unskillful actions as if they are the hapless victim of some incorrigible personality trait, a trait that they seem in fact to find particularly endearing. Through meditation and working with the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, we learn to see the patterns of our own behavior. We see how our mind creates justifications and excuses, how it takes shortcuts and dodges around any reasonable challenges to what we believe to be true. We have skillful questions we can ask of these thoughts that prompted this unskillful action: What was our motivation in that action? If it wasn’t grounded in our intention to be present and compassionate with ourselves and all life, then we were operating out of the murky mire of mindless motivations! We believed we had something to fear, something to hide, or something to prove. Whenever we get bogged down in these motivations, we can pause to recognize the nature of our current quagmire, and reset our intentions to be present in this moment, however uncomfortable, and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. What was the nature of our effort in that action? We were striving, focused on our goal, becoming mindless? Or half-hearted in our effort? Wise Effort is anchored in the present moment, attune to what is needed now. Did we stay on the couch channel surfing when the body wanted to move? Did we keep working on a project when the body wanted to rest? Did we push our agenda through without regard to others? What was the nature of our world view in that action? Did we believe that:
The world is a hostile place filled with threats?
We are this body, separate from the flow of being?
We are these thoughts, unique and in need of defending?
If we just held on tight enough things would stay the same?
If we grab onto something new, it will make things all better?
We are the appointed referee of others’ behavior?
These kinds of beliefs constrict us and force misery upon us and potentially on those around us as well. It’s worthwhile to question all beliefs that fly in the face of Wise View which sees clearly the nature of impermanence (anicca), no separate self (anatta) and the ways we create suffering through clinging to and pushing away our current experience (dukkha). Were we being mindful in that action? Very unlikely. Wise Mindfulness tends to keep us out of trouble. It offers more spaciousness within any moment to make wise choices. Mindfulness is an ongoing practice, stirred by Wise Concentration. The more we develop this muscle of mindfulness, the less often we will cause harm through our actions. The Eightfold Path sheds light on where we strayed and what to do about it now. We attend this moment, and the next as it comes. In this way we deepen our experience of being, and we learn the wisdom and beauty that is present in every moment. If we have wronged someone else, once we recognize it and have reset our intentions, we can do whatever is mindful and compassionate to right the wrong, and if there is nothing that can make it right, a whole-hearted recognition of the wrong may be appreciated. With the help of the Eightfold Path we can see where we went wrong and how we can assure that we will be wiser in the future. Our intention is not to remake ourselves into paragons of virtue. That is just grasping at some identity, and any identity we try to create just sets us up for misery, and Miz Perfect is particularly fraught. We will err, time and again. But with the handy dandy Eightfold Path to show us how we we came to make that mistake, we will spend less time steeped in misery and more time actively engaged in life, with deep appreciation for this fleeting gift. When Others Mess Up
We might notice that our thoughts and emotions are not just entangled in how we may have erred, but in the errors of other people. We might be caught up in blame. We might be stuck in defending the state of victim-hood. The Eightfold Path can also help here. We can look at the action of this other person and see where they strayed off the path. And in so doing, we can begin to see that the action came from mindlessness, from murky motivations, from over- or under-efforting. Seeing this, we can perhaps activate a little more compassion within ourselves. Certainly we have seen how easy it is to go mindless, to follow misguided motivations instead of Wise Intention. If we are struggling with the effects of what someone did to us, the Eightfold Path offers us the means to understand both the other person and what we can do in this moment ourselves. We can look at our intentions toward them. We can see how we may be held in the past by what is unresolved in our heart. We can see how our sense of defending this separate self that has been wronged keeps us from accessing the infinite nature of being. But it is not just people who did us wrong whom we have difficulty with. Perhaps we are in the habit of playing the referee in this game of life, and getting upset over other people’s behavior, even when it does not affect us and we have no say in the matter.In this process, we begin to recognize that those who do wrong are also in a state of mindlessness and lack of understanding of the way of things. How does this alter our feelings towards them? Can we send them metta, loving-kindness, in the form of well-wishes like: May you be well, May you be happy. May you be at ease. May you be at peace. Perhaps metta practice is most challenging when it comes to people convicted of horrendous crimes, people who are serving life sentences or who are sitting on death row. We in Marin County are given the often uncomfortable gift of thinking about these very people every time we take the ferry to and from San Francisco, as we pass close by San Quentin State Penitentiary. That old dilapidated structure holds within its walls men who have committed the most heinously unskillful actions possible. Metta is not selective. It is like the sun, shining on everything in its path. This can be a really big challenge, but it is a challenge worthy of the effort. It is a challenge that requires us to be mindful, to notice our own resistance and be compassionate with that within ourselves that struggles, that reacts, that wants to strike out in anger against perpetrators who struck out in anger. We can see how anger for anger hyper-reactivity creates a dense field of fear-based misery. As we practice compassion and mindfulness, we create spaciousness to hold everything with equanimity, even the existence of the most troubled and unskillful actions. Over the past decade there has been a great revolution inside prison walls all around the world. Prisoners are learning to meditate, to spend time noticing the patterns of their thoughts, to contemplate the actions they have done and to look more clearly at what pain they have caused and to feel compassion for the victims of their actions. This simple practice has transformed many hearts and minds. And in the process it has begun a potential transformation of prisons from violence compression chambers that exacerbate the problem into places of potential healing for both the perpetrators and the victims of crime. May this trend continue! Whoever we are, a regular practice of meditation helps assure that ours is not a caravan of despair, but a caravan of clarity, compassion and joy!